George Strait is retiring next year, but he played a key role in Country Mike's appreciation of the genre.
Music, like so many other hobbies, gives you the opportunity to look at where you were in life at various moments.
That's been true with my George Strait concert experiences, which have numbered eight across four states and ranged from age 17 to age 33.
As many of you know, I caught the country music bug in 1996, during the spring of my sophomore year in high school. I was listening to the radio and country just seemed adventurous.
I felt like I could explore the mountains, plains, coasts and prairies without leaving my suburban Boston bedroom. Two songs struck a chord right away, Joe Diffie's "Bigger Than The Beatles" and Jo Dee Messina's "Heads Carolina, Tails California."
But it wasn't long after that I heard Strait's "Blue Clear Sky" on the radio. I had no idea who he was or the legendary status that he held in country music. I was about to go on an amazingly exciting journey.
I visited the Strawberries record store in Cobb's Corner, and one of the clerks, a long-haired fellow, was surprisingly knowledgeable about country music. He recommended to me (and my mom), which compact discs I should consider buying.
I bought the "Blue Clear Sky" disc and was hooked on Strait from that point forward.
Fast forward through a summer full of listening to country music, and I heard Strait was coming to the Worcester Centrum, 55 miles away from my home in Sharon, Mass.
Living in New England, I wasn't accustomed to driving long distances, so 55 miles seemed far.
The concert, which featured opening act Steve Wariner, was my birthday present.
And my father, who know or cared very little about country music, was a trooper about it and obliged to attend the show with me. I had my driver's permit at the time, so my dad let me drive to the show - my longest drive at the time.
He was pleasantly surprised by Strait's performance, and I was in heaven. Not only was I hearing a country music legend, but I was surrounded by country music fans. That doesn't mean much now, but as a 17-year-old in Massachusetts, it meant something.
The perception there was that country music was for the old and rural. Few of my peers listened to it, and they gave me some good-natured ribbing when I proudly showed up with a George Strait T-Shirt the next day.
The next step in my journey as a Strait fan happened when my best friend, Rob, had a music catalog. I ordered the "Strait Out of The Box" four-disc set and immersed myself in the King of Country's music.
I wore out many of those CDs (and the extensive notes), but I still own them to this day.
In the next few years, I graduated high school and dreamed of attending the George Strait Country Music Festival, but it eluded me in 1999 when he played the old Foxboro Stadium, but I was finishing up my final exams at the University of Delaware.
Eventually, I saw Strait's Stadium Festival in 2000 (my sophomore year of college at University of Kansas), and boy, was it a dandy.
I was freelancing for the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle and pointed out to my editor that Asleep at The Wheel lead singer Ray Benson, one of the few Jewish country music singers, would make an excellent feature story.
I interviewed Benson on the phone and got floor seats to Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium to see him open the show. AATW was excellent, as was the rest of the afternoon - which featured Sara Evans, Lonestar, Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson. I remember missing most of Lonestar's set because I was waiting in line for an autograph from Paisley, which I still proudly own.
I had to wait about six years until my next Strait performance, in 2006. I was married at the time, and living in northern California. My wife and I made the 45-minute trek to Arco Arena to see The King of Country, with Miranda Lambert and Tracy Lawrence on the bill.
Two years later (2008), I traveled with a buddy of mine, Kenny, back to Arco Arena to see Strait, this time with Josh Turner and Sarah Johns. I always thought Johns was a talented artist, so I was disappointed when the Kentucky native disappeared from the country music scene.
Until Sunday night, I'd thought that I'd seen the premier Strait show of all time. He played the grand opening of the $1 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington in June 2009.
It was a historic event, and Reba McEntire, Blake Shelton and Julianne Hough were there to celebrate it. The show was unforgettable, and Strait, obviously moved by the opportunity to play the grand opening of the venue, was more talkative and enthusiastic.
My friend, Ryan, and I made the eight-hour roundtrip to the Dallas-Fort Worth just to see the venerable King of Country.
In 2011, I had the opportunity to see Strait in Texas' capital city of Austin, with my steady girlfriend. I picked her up from work south of Houston, and we arrived just in time for Strait's set. We braved a rainy night and a ticking clock to see his performance at the University of Texas' Frank Erwin Center. You bet it was worth it.
On Sunday night at Houston's Reliant Stadium, I thought about all of those shows - all of the good times and bad times, and how hearing a Strait tune might not necessarily brighten my day, but it would help my crack a smile.
I watched as the legend closed in on a well-deserved retirement, and during a portion of the show - which was opened by Randy Rogers Band and Martina McBride - I thought about everyone who had shared a bill with Strait, from Steve Wariner to Julianne Hough.
I thought about my dad, my friends, my exes (only one of whom lives in Texas) and how much fun those shows were. Sure, he wasn't running around the stage or featuring big-time theatrics, but he did things the old-fashioned way, letting his voice carry the day.
Eight shows, eight different stages in my life. But I wouldn't trade any of those concerts (or life experiences) for anything.
Thank goodness I still have all my George Strait compact discs to re-live those wonderful moments.